Long before there was Buzzfeed, there were online personality quizzes. (Back in the Analog Age, they featured in teen magazines like Sassy and YM.) Today they’re the rabbits of the Internet, every new one that pops up signifying ten more in gestation. “Which Mad Men Character Are You?” “Which Star Wars Character Are You?” “What City Are You?” Leading columnist Emma Roller to wisely observe, “No one cares.”
Just for once, I’d love to see a quiz-taker being told: You’re Werda, Germany! Or You’re Selden, New York: You’ve got some nice areas and some sketchy areas, and a lot of perfectly fine but nondescript highways and sidestreets. A famous person passed through once, though that was ages ago. Some people like you, some people don’t. Most people haven’t heard of you except the couple thousand people who live there, plus the people who visit them or send them mail.
Or how about a quiz that announces, You’re one of the soldiers in Star Wars who gets killed in the first three minutes. Without you, and a bunch of other characters like you, there would be no shoot-out scene, and without the shoot-out scene, the audience wouldn’t know soon enough that they should fear the Empire. You are certainly useful—that’s why the actor who played you got paid after all—but no one will be looking for your name in the credits.
If such a result on a personality quiz sounds unthinkably cruel, then maybe we really do have a narcissism epidemic on our hands. Narcissism, after all, is the tendency to put your own needs ahead of others’ because, deep down inside, you believe you are more deserving of praise and sympathy. Because you’re different and special. (“Maybe there are a lot of Werdas and Seldens out there, but not me!”)
Every single one of us needs to feel special to someone, but the severity of this need can determine the difference between being self-confident and being self-involved. And when minorities embrace our exceptionality and take pride in being special, are we part of the problem?
It is easy to understand why minorities celebrate diversity with pride parades and slogans. Anyone who has been beaten up, harassed, or excluded for qualities they have no control over is understandably in need of a salve, whether that means spilling their hearts out in group therapy or singing along with the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus, “I am beautiful, no matter what they say.” When I mentioned to my mother that I’d been asked at school at least ten times in one month, “Why is your head so big?” she replied, “Just tell them you have an extra package of brains, honey!”
It was a sweet, wonderful piece of advice. With one hitch. My ten year-old self took her explanation literally, thrilled by the news that dwarfs are neurologically advantaged! And even when I later found out that she meant it figuratively, I continued to believe for a period that I was truly smarter than any ignoramus who had questions about my body. Society does have many hang-ups about difference that fuel rude questions and comments, and this is indisputably problematic. But it is also problematic to counteract these hang-ups with the conviction that your difference makes you essentially better than everyday people.
It is no coincidence that the minority rights movements of the 1970s and 80s peaked right before the height of the self-esteem movement. With self-determination seen as the key to obliterating prejudice and fear of the Other, millions of children in my generation grew up chanting, “I’m special!” I remember singing along with Piglet and Tigger:
If everybody were like everybody else,
How boring it would be.
The things that make me different,
Are the things that make me, Me!
You’re in a class by yourself.
You’re not like anyone else.
No doubt about it.
You’re second to none,
’Cause you’re the one and only,
You’re the one and only one!
This approach was very well-intentioned, but half-baked. Everyone is special insofar as everyone is unique. But we so often use “special” interchangeably with “extraordinary,” as in: not merely unique, but better than the rest. It is statistically impossible for everyone to be second to none. We can simultaneously be unique and ordinary, yet it’s a fact that is hard for us to wrap our heads around and even harder for our egos to accept. It is unsurprising that raising a generation of individuals to celebrate their exceptional qualities has unleashed millions of adults who are now struggling to deal with the countless moments in which they are reminded that they are not all that different from anyone else. And who wince at the thought of being called “average.”
This doesn’t have to yield narcissism, but it can. Narcissism causes people to repeatedly bring up their differences not in order to feel comfortable with them, but in order to prove their exceptionality. It causes them to talk more than they listen, to abandon relationships after the initial shine wears off, to justify hurting their partner or bailing out on their families. Narcissism causes non-famous people to pity themselves as underappreciated, undiscovered geniuses lost in a sea of lowly idiots, and it causes famous people to fanatically envy those who are more famous. Narcissism can cause someone to not merely believe in changing the law in the pursuit of justice but to see herself as being above the law. And while it may help her keep her head held high when someone criticizes her unfairly, narcissism leaves her bitter and spiteful when the criticism is on the mark.
And where there is narcissism, there is the savior complex – the desire to help people not because you would want someone to do the same for you in the same situation, but because you recognize an opportunity to be seen as special. This attitude betrays a very bleak view of minorities and those in need – the self-appointed savior believes they should be grateful to him because he is exceptionally open-minded, unlike normal people, who would be repulsed by them.
This is why the minority rights movement is inherently opposed to narcissism. Narcissism upholds hierarchies and depletes empathy, and there can be no human rights without empathy.
In fact, being seen as ordinary is the ultimate goal of any minority rights movement. After counteracting fear and hatred with enough celebration of diversity to preserve everyone’s well-being, most minorities hope to one day garner about as much recognition as left-handed people. In the West today, no one tries to nervously change the subject or get ready for attacks when someone brings up their left-handedness, nor do they gush about how great it is to know someone so different! The idea of putting left-handed people on display in a theme park is unthinkable. Not only would that be spectacularly inhumane, but who on earth would go? Left-handedness is interesting, but it’s not that interesting.
Narcissism fosters an addiction to the idea of being recognized as interesting. Encouraging a wallflower ostracized for her looks to question mainstream beauty standards can help boost her self-satisfaction and all-around happiness. Encouraging her to disregard anyone who doesn’t explicitly praise how she looks can trigger anti-social behavior. So how do we avoid this?
Superb articles at Slate and The New York Times have been exploring better methods for teaching children modesty and emotional intelligence, while recent novels like this and articles like this have been making self-proclaimed progressives examine our sometimes monstrously selfish habits. And how did I come to stop thinking that my dwarfism made me superior?
A few months after our discussion about my exceptionally sized skull, I was bragging to my mother about being the only kid at my elementary school with dwarfism. Although I don’t remember exactly what I was bragging about, I vividly remember my mother’s concerned look before she said, “I hope you don’t think you’re special.”
W-w-hat? Wait, I’m not special? Her words stuck with me like a stone in my shoe, as most good pieces of advice are wont to do.
My parents are the most supportive people any child could wish for. They also called me out whenever they sensed I was taking up too much space.
My dad beamed upon hearing that I had passed all of my exams after having struggled to find time to study during a year of two surgeries and lots of physical therapy. But he laughed in my face the next summer when I tried to boast about working TWENTY hours a week.
At the end of one of my limb-lengthening procedures, when six metal rods were unscrewed from my thigh bone without local anesthesia, I screamed until I couldn’t hear myself anymore because the femur is the biggest bone in the body and the pain matched its size. The last coherent thing I remember shrieking was directed at my surgeon: “I HATE YOU!” My mom later told me he apologized to me with every turn of the screw, but I was too hysterical to notice. What I do remember is lying on the table with no one left in the room but my mother and her friend who had come along to help, my eyes stinging with the salt of the tears, hyperventilating and moaning until the friend interrupted me: “Emily, stop it! You’ve cried enough. It hurt, you were upset, but now IT’S OVER.”
That’s what friends are for. To be proud of your achievements, sympathetic to your pain, and to also tell you when you’re being ridiculous.